When my Mum died I worried about how it would affect my kids. We are a close-knit family and my boys, especially my eldest bunny, were really close to their Grannie.
Grief was hard enough for the grown-ups. How would it affect a 9 and 6 year old?
The night Mum died, I came home from the hospital and broke the news to the boys as gently as I could. My youngest, who reacts strongly to the emotions of the people around him, curled up in my lap and cried with me. My older bunny though, he did not shed a single tear. I watched him and worried. Surely this was not good? I told him it was okay to cry, but still he didn’t. Was holding his feelings in? Walling them off, as I had done in the months leading up to my Mum’s death? Was he trying to be tough? Would his feelings come out in other ways? I wondered: was there a ‘right’ way to grieve?
A few minutes passed and then he turned to me and said “Mummy, where is Granny now?”
We have a policy of always telling our kids the truth. They know that there is no question I won’t answer. Obviously we manage our explanations based on how old the kids are, but overall, as best we can, they always get the truth. This time it was hard, but I did the best I could. “I don’t know, love. She always said she would be looking down on us. I’d like to think that’s what she’s doing now, but I don’t know.”
Not the best answer, but I hoped it would help.
But he shook his head. “No, Mummy, that’s not what I mean. I mean where is she actually? Is she at the hospital? What will they do with her?”
I realised that he wanted to know about her body. For a split second I balked. Surely…surely this was morbid territory for a nine year old. As I tried to figure out how to explain it to him, it occurred to me that perhaps he was trying to process the loss of his beloved Grannie, just as we were. He simply needed to go about it in his own way, by asking questions that would help him understand.
So I took a deep breath and explained as gently as I could that yes, Grannie was still at the hospital and that they would keep her in the morgue and that the next day, she would be cremated. I explained that she wasn’t ‘in’ her body anymore. He thought about that for a while. Then he simply said “Okay.”
In the days that followed, I watched him like a hawk, looking for any sign that he was having difficulty. He had still not shed a tear, but he had asked many, many more questions.
“Where do people go when they die?”
“Why do people get buried?”
“What happens when someone is cremated?”
“Did Grannie want to be cremated?”
“What did Grannie look like when she died?”
The questions were sometimes hard to answer, but we answered them anyway.
People seem to expect tears when someone grieves. But my eldest bunny, with his sharp and curious mind didn’t need the tears. He needed clarity in order to process what had happened. So that’s what we gave him. We talked about Grannie. We laughed at all the crazy antics she would get up to. We told stories of all our favourite things about her. On her birthday, we made her favourite cake. It wasn’t always easy, but we discovered that by helping him to heal, we all began to heal.
Several days after Mum’s death, I spoke with a children’s grief counsellor from the Temmy Latner Palliative Care team at Mount Sinai hospital. I told her all about my older Bunny’s reaction and she confirmed what I had figured out: his reaction was actually just fine. Everyone needs to grieve in his or her own way, and children most of all. There should be no expectation or timeline. If you need to cry that’s okay, but if you don’t, that’s okay too. Giving him answers to all his questions was exactly what he needed in order to deal with the death of his Grannie.
But what about the younger bunny? He had cried the night that his Grannie died, but I knew it was due more to the fact that I was crying than his own grief. After that night, he hadn’t said much about it. I wondered if he understood what had happened. Was he too young? Did it simply not have the impact on him that it did on the rest of us?
I soon discovered that he too had his own special way of dealing with his sadness.
Several months after Mum’s death, the little bunny and I were walking to school. It was a gorgeous spring day, full of buds about to pop and warm breezes. The whole world seemed to hum with things growing.
As we walked along, my little boy happily stopped to look at bugs and flowers, gently touching the new leaves on the hedges. He skipped over cracks in the sidewalk and chattered away about everything and nothing at all. I marvelled at him. His big heart and gentle ways were living proof that as bad as it can be sometimes, life goes on.
Then I noticed the little black bundle of fur in the road. It looked like an unlucky squirrel had been hit and killed by a passing car. As we approached the squashed little body, I tried to shield my little bunny from seeing it. We’d had enough of death, and this poor little creature had met such a painful end. Despite my attempts to distract him, he saw it and went quiet. A few yards further down the sidewalk he said “What do you think happened to him, Mummy?”
“I think he was hit by a car, love. I didn’t want you to see it. I thought it would make you sad.”
He turned his sweet little smile up to me and he said “It is sad, Mummy, but it’s okay. The squirrel is with Grannie now, in Grannieland. There are trees there for him to climb in and he has friends there. And Grannie, of course.”
And there it was. I understood that he had dealt with his grief by creating his own version of heaven.
I leaned down and gave him a hug and a kiss. And as we walked along on that spring morning, I marvelled at how these two little boys had managed in two completely different ways, to understand and cope with tragedy, just by being themselves.